A report published by Mexico’s Human Rights Commission shows that close to 10,000 migrants were kidnapped for ransom in Mexican territory between September 2008 and February 2009. That’s an average of 50 kidnappings a day for 6 months. The commission based its statistics on information provided by migrant shelters, migrant testimonies, press accounts, and legal records, while noting that the actual dimensions of the kidnapping problem are likely much larger.
More than half of the nearly 10,000 kidnappings documented by the National Human Rights Commission occurred in the southern states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
Friar Blas Alvarado, who runs a migrant shelter in the southern border town of Tenosique, Tabasco, said the commission’s statistics are just the tip of the iceberg because his shelter has had “hundreds more cases that we haven’t documented or reported because, at this point, we don’t know where to take them”. He says he doesn’t trust the National Human Rights Commission to do anything beyond crunch numbers and that he doesn’t trust any other government agency because “they know very well – and have known for a long time – where these crimes are taking place, and they don’t do anything”.
Ties to organized crime
Migrant kidnappings in Tabasco and Veracruz are mostly attributed to the “Zetas” organized crime group. Friar Blas Alvarado says officials take no action against kidnappers either out of fear or because they are in collusion with the criminals. “The Zetas started out trafficking drugs and weapons, then got into kidnapping…and now they’ve taken over smuggling the undocumented. There used to be groups of coyotes that worked almost like independent contractors. Now, they’re all controlled by the Zetas.”
The Zetas group is often referred to as the paramilitary wing of the Gulf Cartel. Beyond controlling organized crime activities in the southern states of Tabasco and Veracruz, the Zetas have also tried to muscle their way into migrant smuggling and kidnapping in Oaxaca.
Running a gauntlet of dangers
Reaching the United States as an undocumented Central American has never been easy. Countless migrants have sustained permanent injuries while jumping onto – or falling off of – the freight trains that provide free transportation north. Corrupt Mexican authorities are notorious for giving the undocumented the choice between deportation or paying a bribe. And the well-worn migration paths are habitual targets of highway robbers. But a new danger has emerged in the past 3 years; that of kidnapping migrants for ransom.
The most highly trafficked migration routes in Mexico are the railways that carry freight from one end of the country to the other. In the busy seasons, each train can carry hundreds of migrants – riding on top of or in between the cars.
That’s how Jose Gabriel Aguirre was traveling when he and others were attacked near the state line between Oaxaca and Chiapas by armed men in military uniforms.
Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs the migrant shelter in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca, urged Jose Gabriel to file an official complaint to document his case and solicit a visa to cross Mexico legally…but the young Salvadoran didn’t anticipate the grinding pace of Mexican bureaucracy.
Jose Gabriel said he “never imagined it would take so long” to process his paperwork and that “there comes a time when one becomes impatient and wants to just leave”.
The time involved in filing a formal legal complaint is dissuasive to many migrants who just want to reach their destination as quickly as possible.
Food and shelter as bait
Church-run shelters in Mexico are crucial to migrant safety. In the areas without shelters, migrants are vulnerable to attack while sleeping in the open, waiting for the train, or searching for food. Exhaustion and hunger in these unprotected areas can make an invitation for a hot meal in private home very appealing…but it’s one of the primary methods used to trap the unsuspecting.
Jaime Curri from Honduras already knew to be wary of the seemingly friendly invitations after his brother was assaulted in La Arrocera, Chiapas.
“The women there help to make the assaults possible” says Jaime, “they’ll call to you from the line of houses next to the tracks saying ‘Hey, come over here – wouldn’t you like something to eat?’ Once you’re inside eating, they’ll draw their weapons on you and strip you naked right there – right in the house where they fed you! They’ll strip you naked and leave you with nothing.”
Friar Blas Alvarado says the same trick is used in Tenosique to lure groups of kidnapping victims into safe houses. Once closed up inside, armed men threaten and even torture their victims to extract telephone numbers of family members in the US or in home countries. Then, the extortion begins.
Ransom money and complicity
The National Human Rights Commission says the average ransom is $2500 and that kidnapping networks make upwards of $50 million a year. The report includes testimonies of migrants who witnessed killings of other kidnapping victims when their ransoms weren’t paid.
But Friar Alvarado says shelter workers can do little to free kidnapping victims, especially when kidnappers seem to always get tipped off before a police raid. Aside from teaching prevention, Friar Alvarado says the best way to combat the kidnapping rings head-on is through military action.
“We have a military base here in Tenosique” says Friar Alvarado. “If they really wanted to do something about the problem, there would be a military operation. So be it – send in the military to sweep and clean up all of those neighborhoods where migrants are kidnapped. And even if they detain and deport the migrants, I think many would prefer that to being held in captivity with kidnappers taking money from their families… but they haven’t taken that kind of action. I wish they would.”
Whether the military is less susceptible to corruption than the Mexican police isn’t clear. The founders of the Zetas themselves came from the ranks of the military’s special forces.
But doing nothing has allowed the kidnapping industry to reach its present-day proportions, nurtured by impunity and official disinterest.
In its report, the National Human Rights Commission recommended the creation of mechanisms to coordinate a police response to the wave of kidnappings, as well as explicitly giving undocumented migrants the same rights as Mexican crime victims. But, like all recommendations from the commission to the Mexican state, they are not binding.
(A version of this report produced for radio is available here)